My friend Bo is a Division 1 football player. (And you can tell.) Because of this, he spends a lot of time thinking about what he eats. He tracks every nutrient that goes into his body. He makes all of the best decisions. When it comes to nutrition, the word “optimal” just fits.
I am not a D1 athlete. (And you can tell.) But if you compare my diet to Bo’s diet, you will see about an 80% overlap. Seriously. We eat the same foods. We avoid the same foods. We cook the same recipes. Most meals have similar macro-nutrient breakdowns.
But the point where we differ is our time and willpower investment. For being 80% optimal, my diet doesn’t require much effort. Bo’s requires a ton. And it’s not because he’s bad at planning, but because that Final 20% of optimal nutrition is really hard. He just needs to spend that extra time because he needs to be a well-oiled machine.
Which leads me to my point…
The beautiful truth about nutrition is that you and I don’t need to worry about that Final 20%. It’s demanding, controversial, confusing, lower-impact, and person-specific. The First 80% of nutrition, however, is intuitive, well-researched, cheap, and will change the crap out of your life.
And while there are non-athlete cases where one needs to focus on the “Final 20%” of nutrition (think: vegan, food allergy, surgery, etc.), most of us would see a dramatic improvement in our quality of life if we just focused on the First 80% and left it at that.
The problem is that most marketing is for the controversial, person-dependent, low-impact “Final 20%” of nutrition. Because of that, we have a country of people investing their time and money into the aspects of nutrition that do not significantly affect the quality of their life.
This article is about educating you on the simple and intuitive aspects of the “First 80%” of nutrition and warning you against wasting your time on the “Final 20%.“
A Place To Start: The Energy Metric
“Manage your energy first.”
—Scott Adams, Dilbert
The place to start when talking about nutrition is not six-pack abs. The place to start is not FDA recommendations, vitamins, or calories. The place to start is ENERGY. Not energy from a thermodynamic perspective (we’ll actually get to that), but personal energy. Like, being alert vs. tired. Or, being mentally focused vs. hazy. Being a little hungry vs. very hangry.
By centering our discussion around personal energy, we give ourselves an easily identifiable metric for evaluating our decisions about food. Unfortunately, the most common metric people use is a weight loss metric. This is bad idea for many reasons, but let’s just use the most obvious one. If we’re using a weight loss metric to evaluate the quality of our nutrition, an increase or decrease in weight cannot be correlated to anything. It takes too long to notice any changes. And even if there are changes, we can’t know if the changes are a good thing. Weight loss/gain is far too complicated (and slow!) to teach us anything about our bodies.
Instead, if we judge the quality of our nutrition based on how we feel two hours after a meal, we can pinpoint with some clarity how our bodies respond to broccoli vs. Oreos. If our bodies are alert and ready to kick some ass, we probably ate the right foods. If we’re napping on our keyboard at work, we didn’t.
The personal energy metric tells us 500x more information than a number on a scale. It’s simple. The feedback it provides is quick. And it doesn’t tie the quality of our nutrition to our body image.
Thing #1: Let’s evaluate the quality of our diet by noting our energy levels 2-ish hours after a meal. If we are consistently alert throughout the day, we’re making good decisions. If our energy levels fluctuate, there’s room to experiment and figure out what is the cause of our low energy.
“Calories-In Calories-Out” Is True, It’s Just The Least Helpful Advice Ever And You Should Never Say It Again
“What you eat makes quite a difference. Just counting calories won’t matter much unless you look at the kinds of calories you’re eating.”
—Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, Still Counting Calories? Your Weight-Loss Plan May Be Outdated
If we locked a group of people in a room and had 100% control over their diet, we could induce weight loss through calorie restriction. High-fat, low-fat. High-carb, low-carb. Doesn’t matter. When we restrict calories, people lose weight. Put them on a treadmill and they’ll lose more weight. It’s reproducible and it makes for OK television (The Biggest Loser).
Therefore, calories-in calories-out!
Solved it. *high-five* Take that, obesity!
While this is (sort of) true from a thermodynamic perspective, it is far too simplistic to be of any help to a real person. It doesn’t account for food’s effect on resting metabolic rate. It doesn’t account for food’s ability to positively and negatively impact our state of mind and active energy expenditure (the personal energy metric). It doesn’t account for our hormonal response to particular macro-nutrients. It neglects where we are losing the weight (muscle, fat, bone, water, etc.).
It’s kind of like saying that the team that wins the football game is the one that scores the most points. It is oversimplification to the point of neglecting the factors that matter most.
While you might not be tempted to use a weight loss metric to evaluate the quality of your diet, you might be tempted to use a Calorie metric. Don’t do that, either. It’s just as dumb. It’s popular, but it’s dumb.
Calories are the most commonly marketed and discussed piece of the “Final 20%” of nutrition. Unless you’re an athlete or something, you shouldn’t even be thinking about Calories. Heck, even if you’re trying to lose weight (which you shouldn’t be doing until you’ve nailed-down the First 80% of Nutrition), Calories aren’t really worth your time.
Personal Energy is our metric. Not weight loss. Not Calories.
Thing #2: Never use the word Calorie again (unless lifestyle necessitates focusing on the Final 20% of Nutrition).
A Second Metric: Macro-Nutrients
“Five bananas. Six bananas. SEVEN BANANAS!”
—Count von Count, Sesame Street
We already have one metric for evaluating the quality of our diet: personal energy. Why do we need a second one?
To be honest, we don’t. It’s just an added layer of information that CAN be helpful. Take it or leave it. I even have a few reservations, myself.
But if you’re curious how counting macro-nutrients can be a helpful metric, read on.
What are macro-nutrients? Good question. They are the energy source for our bodies. They serve other functions, but for our purposes, they’re an energy source.
How many “macros” are there? There are three. And you’ve heard of them: carbohydrate, protein, and fat. You might have strong feelings toward one or more, but please know that none of them are inherently evil. They are (basically) just energy.
So if they are all just forms of energy, why would we track them? I’m apparently not allowed to track Calories. This just seems like a more complicated version of that. OK, good point. Yes, energy is measured in Calories. But we don’t count macros to track our total energy intake. We count macros to track the different types of energy we intake. Even though macros are all forms of energy, we track them to get an accurate picture of where this energy is coming from. Spinach, strawberries, and Oreos all provide our bodies with carbohydrates. And—regardless of the source—a carbohydrate is (basically) a carbohydrate from an energy standpoint. But our bodies and brains respond differently to each of these foods. Same with protein and fat.
Counting macro-nutrients (which we can do easily on an app like My Fitness Pal) is an observational technique that will help us further understand how our food choices (or lack of choices) affect our personal energy.
But with a few caveats…
Caveat 1: The reason we track macros is important.
For us, tracking macros (if we choose to do it) is about gaining an holistic understanding of how our bodies respond to macro-nutrients. Think of it as a more in-depth application of the personal energy metric. We do it to learn about food and learn about our bodies. People respond differently to different levels of fat, protein, and carbohydrate in their diet.
And aside from being a helpful way to understand how food affects our personal energy, counting macro-nutrients prevents us from two harmful attitudes toward nutrition.
(Dangerous) Attitude 1: Believe everything. The state of scientific research right now is not at its best. The problem is made worse by well-meaning writers and greedy marketers who do not know how to distinguish good research from poor research. And since good research tends to be pretty nuanced and specific, boiling it down to a (truthful) catchy headline can be impossible. And realistically, most research is meant to be considered in relation to a greater body of research; to build upon itself. This greater body of understanding can usually be learned from scientific review papers that combine all of the relevant research into one place.
But do people get their nutrition advice from scientific review papers? No. They get it from Buzzfeed and HuffPost.
So why would we track macros? Well, we don’t track macros because it’s a fad. We track macros to avoid the fads. We don’t just follow the next big thing. We use macros as a measurement to evaluate the changes we’re making to our diet. In a sense, tracking macros is a system of checks and balances that keeps us from believing everything.
(Dangerous) Attitude 2: “Hit my macros.” There is no universal “perfect diet.” But some diets are better than others. (Like, a zero-fat or zero-protein diet will kill you.) And since some diets are better than others, it makes sense to try them out and see what works for our bodies and lifestyles. But this can be taken a little too far.
For example, take a look at these diets, broken down by macro percentages:
- 20% fat : 50% carbs : 30% protein (Bodybuilder diet; includes calorie surplus)
- 30% fat : 40% carbs : 30% protein (Common “maintenance” diet)
- 40% fat : 25% carbs : 35% protein (Fat loss diet; includes calorie restriction)
- 75% fat : 5% carbs : 20% protein (Ketogenic Diet – epilepsy treatment)
You can probably imagine how some people fret and argue over 1% variances in these diets. That’s not how we roll. It’s good to have loose guidelines, but the First 80% of nutrition does not involve “hitting our macros” every single day. It involves lots of observation and finding a way of eating that maximizes our personal energy. That might look like a 30 : 40 : 30 breakdown for most people, but to expect anyone to be within 5% of that goal every day is ridiculous.
Screw daily macro goals. There isn’t some perfect diet that will make all of our dreams come true. What will make our dreams come true is understanding our bodies well and consistently eating foods that maximize our personal energy.
I’ve used the word “diet” a lot in this article. To clarify, I am not talking about “going on a diet.” In our culture, the word diet refers to a temporary way of eating that will change body composition. This is harmful and ineffective.When I say “diet,” I’m talking about a permanent change in the way a person relates to food. Think about “changing your diet” as something you do forever, not for Spring Break abs.
Caveat 2: We eat differently when we track stuff.
Dietitians love food journaling. And for good reason. There is lots of good research showing that when we stop to write down what we’ve eaten, positive lifestyle change happens. And counting macros is basically food journaling plus a little science-based observation that produces nice pie charts.
But I still don’t believe counting macros should be a long-term lifestyle thing. See, the reason food journaling is effective is because it requires willpower. But that’s not actually a good thing because when we have less willpower, we make impulsive decisions. And impulsivity isn’t going to do us any favors in the game of nutrition. We want to eat in such a way that we are not depleting our willpower. And to do that, we need to track our diets sparingly.
So when it comes to diet, I think that food journaling and counting macros is valuable. But my goal is to eliminate the need for willpower, not be dependent on it. And if I’m always counting my macros, food will always be a source of willpower-drain. And then I’ll start coming up with weird terms like “Cheat Day” just to get out of tracking them.
I guarantee that you will see a ton of positive change if you start food journaling or counting macros. But I also guarantee that you will see many of those changes fade away when you stop. The key is to change the way you eat when you’re NOT tracking everything. To find a happy medium between willpower and habit change.
Because nutrition shouldn’t be complicated or time-consuming.
Thing #3: Track your macro-nutrient intake to learn more about how food affects your personal energy. But do it sparingly to preserve your willpower.
The Bad Guys Are Not Who You Think They Are
“The Tobacco Industry of the next century will be Porn and Sugar.”
I don’t like using the phrase “Food Myths.” And I don’t really like using the word “healthy,” either. It helps perpetuate a story of “good for you” foods and “bad for you” foods, rather than explaining the story about how food works. It’s a way to shroud everything in mystery to get you to spend money in a certain way.
Thank you, Marketing.
So I want to take a second to undo a little bit of the marketing and talk about the “myth” of the “bad for you” foods.
Fat is one of the three macro-nutrients. By weight, it provides your body with the most energy. And honestly, you should eat more of it—not because it tastes delicious, but because of how it affects your personal energy. Fat is like a candle. Slow and steady energy. It doesn’t mess with with your blood sugar much, but tends to keep it at a pretty steady level. Carbohydrates—on the other hand—have a more significant impact on personal energy.
But wait. Doesn’t fat clog your arteries? It doesn’t. But I understand why you think that. Fat molecules are “hydrophobic,” meaning that they stick together in the presence of water. It’s a thermodynamics thing. You’ve probably noticed this when you try to wash fat off of a dirty dish with water. The water doesn’t do anything. Without soap, fat is just this sticky substance that blobs together in the presence of water. And since blood is made of water, fat seems like the last thing you want floating through your skinny veins. But our bodies are not kitchen sinks. And they are really efficient at processing fat. They have their own versions of “soap” to keep fat flowing freely through our arteries.
OK, what about saturated fat? Nasty stuff. How do I avoid that? Don’t. Fat is energy. Good energy. Energy that doesn’t spike your blood sugar. That word “saturated” just means that the fatty acid chain is fully-saturated with hydrogen molecules. And that means that the carbon chain hasn’t formed double bonds. And when there aren’t double bonds, digestion is easier. But that doesn’t mean that unsaturated fats (fats from non-animal sources, generally) are bad, either. They are super-good. Which is why you should eat all of them, saturated and unsaturated. Animals and plants. Don’t worry (too much) about proportions. Eat more fat. End of story. It’s your blood sugar’s best friend.
What about trans fat? Isn’t that the really bad one? OK, yeah. You got me there. Trans fat is freaking terrible. But that’s because it’s not found naturally and our bodies can’t digest it properly. So yeah, steer clear of that one. Which is pretty easy, as long as you’re not eating margarine and other heavily-processed foods.
Cholesterol is also a hydrophobic molecule. And that is where fat and cholesterol cease to have things in common. Cholesterol is a very important molecule for your body. It is the foundational building block for molecules like estrogen, testosterone, and adrenal hormones. It is needed for cell membranes to function properly. It is needed for Vitamin D production. And you should be eating it, not avoiding it.
Aren’t high cholesterol levels bad? Sort of. Heart disease is bad. And high levels of cholesterol are a minimal risk factor for heart disease. And eating cholesterol does not raise your cholesterol levels, either. Saturated fat has an impact on these levels, but it’s not that significant. And there is evidence that a high-fat diet lowers one’s risk of heart disease.
You f***ing just made that up! I understand your frustration. Google “saturated fat and cholesterol” and the first few results will tell you to limit your saturated fat and cholesterol intake because of its effect on your LDL and HDL levels, which are a marker for heart disease. But check the sources for those articles and you will find that they’re citing pretty old research that has largely been unsupported. And if you still don’t believe me, read this and this. But it would be quicker to believe me.
To be clear, you’re telling me to stop avoiding cholesterol and saturated fat. That seems so gross and unhealthy. It does. But that’s only because of a lifetime of marketing. Screw marketing and observe how these foods affect your personal energy. And get a blood test if you’re into that kind of thing.
Meat is muscle (think: cow biceps and chicken pectorals). The reason we distinguish meats from one another isn’t because the muscles of animals are drastically different. We distinguish them because they contain different levels of fat. The reason fish is considered healthy and red meat is considered unhealthy isn’t because the proteins in the muscles are (much) different. Fish muscle is low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fat. Cow muscle is high in saturated fat.
Yes, monounsaturated fat is better for our bodies and energy levels. But saturated fat is not bad for us. It’s a neutral component of our diet. It’s not the bad guy, but it’s also not the hero. For that reason, red meat is not something to be avoided. But protein from fish and chicken is something to be encouraged.
Salt is an ionic compound of sodium and chlorine (NaCl). If you took Cellular Biology in college, you will remember that the sodium-potassium pump is one of the cell’s biggest energy expenditures. Having the appropriate sodium concentrations throughout every cell in your body is incredibly important. And for our purposes, that really doesn’t matter. I just wanted to show off a little bit.
When it comes to salt, what does matter is that there isn’t good research tying it to heart disease. Salt is a substance that your body is pretty good at processing. If we’re drinking water, our kidneys will function properly and keep everything in balance. My advice is to not even worry about sodium intake. If we steer clear of processed foods, it’s hard to eat too much salt. So season foods to your liking.
(Of course, if you have a medical condition that requires a low-sodium diet (think: kidney problems), listen to your doctor. That’s a Final 20% thing.)
Cheese and Bacon
The reason we are told to stay away from cheese and bacon is because of their saturated fat content. And since saturated fat is a neutral source of energy, we don’t need to avoid these foods. Just don’t eat cheese and bacon with every meal. (That is the saddest sentence in the entire article.)
Thing #4: Mistrust all marketing and learn how food works. If someone claims that a certain food is “unhealthy,” ask How? and Why? If they cite a “new study,” be even more critical. Oh, and don’t be afraid of adding fat to your diet.
Some of the Good Guys Are Lazy Bums
“Fat isn’t bad; stupid is bad. And until we have better information and clearer shared language defining our food, smart choices will be ever harder to make.
–Michael Ruhlman, Washington Post
Marketing has taught us to see certain foods as “healthy” and other foods as “unhealthy.” And that is mega-unhelpful. I just touched on some “unhealthy” foods that you shouldn’t fear. Now, I want to talk about a few “healthy” foods that don’t deserve that label.
You’ve been waiting to hear this all your life: Salad is a freaking waste of time.
Let me break down the logic:
- Salad is mostly lettuce.
- Lettuce is 96% water. (And the other 4% really doesn’t have much nutritional value, either.)
- All of that water makes lettuce hard to grow, easy to waste, and expensive to transport. (Carbon footprint, anyone?)
- Oh, and lettuce is the number one cause of food-borne illness.
- Double-Oh, lettuce doesn’t even taste good.
By no means is lettuce bad for your body, but if you’re going to eat a vegetable, eat something worth your time and money. In the words of food columnist Tamar Haspel, “maybe we should stop thinking about salad as a wholesome staple, and start thinking about it as a resource-hungry luxury.”
The argument for whole grains is pretty simple. They provide fiber and a few other things like B-vitamins, manganese, potassium, and magnesium. They’re also pretty good at helping us feel full. And because of that, I think whole grains are worth including in our diet.
But 6-11 servings per day is a freaking joke. Wheat isn’t nutritious enough to warrant that big of a stake in our diet. To eat that much whole grain would mean to crowd out foods that are a better source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Whole grain isn’t a bad thing, but it becomes a bad thing when it prevents us from eating the really good stuff.
Whole grains aren’t the bad guy. In my mind, they’re about as useful as saturated fat. They’re neutral. We should eat them. We shouldn’t be afraid of them. There’s no reason to cut them out of our diet. But there are far better foods out there that provide more fiber and micronutrients, without loading us down with carbohydrates.
Simplification: Trans fats are bad. Saturated fats are neutral. Poly- and mono-unsaturated fats are good.
Understatement: Fat is delicious.
Not a simplification or an understatement: Any food item that claims to be “LOW FAT!” should be thrown in the trash. It has been heavily processed. An incredible amount of high-fructose corn syrup has been added to make it palatable. And the marketing team is made up of idiots.
Fruits aren’t vegetables that just taste better. They’re watery sacks of natural sugar. Yes, they have vitamins and fiber and they’re more nutritious than an Oreo (by far). And I’m not saying we should stop eating fruit. I’m just saying that fruit is no substitute for vegetables, whole grains, and stuff. Fruit is more like a dessert than it is like broccoli, so eat it sparingly, especially if you are trying to lose weight or control your blood sugar.
Thing #5: There are no “healthy” foods. There are macronutrients, micronutrients, and your willpower. All three impact your personal energy in different ways. Consider those the next time culture pressures you to eat a certain way.
Carbs And Personal Energy
“If it came from a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.”
Remember that our overarching goal for nutrition is to maximize personal energy. And remember that it’s helpful to think of food in terms of macro-nutrients. And remember that the three macro-nutrients are protein, fat, and carbohydrate.
Each macronutrient affects our personal energy differently. Protein has little effect on personal energy. Fat has a little more of an effect (and it is mostly good). But carbohydrates have the greatest potential to mess with our personal energy. Protein and fat are pretty tame. Carbs can mess you up. And that’s what makes them complicated.
Because of that complexity, philosophies like the Paleo and Atkins Diet have rocketed to popularity. They are popular because they have a very simple anti-carb stance. It’s easy to understand, but a little too elementary. That’s not the worst thing in the world, but it would make more sense to work things out with carbs than break up with them via text message and delete them from Facebook.
Yes, carbohydrates have great potential to destroy our personal energy and, yes, they are the reason for the obesity epidemic in America. But just because they have the greatest potential to mess with our personal energy doesn’t mean that we should minimize them. Actually, we should understand them.
Simple and Complex Carbs
Think of carbohydrates like Legos. Complex carbohydrates are tall Lego towers. They are time-consuming spaceships and Batmobiles. They take time to build and time to break down. Simple carbohydrates are the Legos, themselves.
Our bodies don’t use big carbohydrate towers for energy. They use the individual sugar molecules. So when you eat a bowl of oatmeal (a tower of carbohydrates) it takes time for your body to break it apart into all of the individual Lego blocks of energy. This releases a slow, steady supply of sugar into your blood and provides a slow, steady stream of energy. A big bowl of sugar has the opposite effect. All of that sugar hits your blood stream at the same time and your body has to respond fast and loud to keep everything in working order.
Insulin is your mom. Insulin is always there exerting a disciplinary force on your Lego play. Usually, she’s just in the background making dinner. But when things get out of hand (think: big bowl of sugar), mom has to step in and give a little hard love. The last thing we want is for mom to step in. That ruins all of the fun. And the more often mom steps in, the louder she gets. We don’t want mom to get loud.
Like your mom, insulin is complicated. There are a lot of factors that influence whether or not she is going to yell at you. It’s not all about complex vs simple carbohydrates. Which is why this metaphor has to end for the sake of clarity.
To better understand how carbohydrates, insulin, and blood sugar interact, I would like to introduce you to three indices.
Glycemic Index, Glycemic Load, and Insulin Index
The Glycemic Index is a way of measuring food’s impact on your blood sugar. It tells you how quickly the carbs in food are digested and how significantly it will impact your blood sugar. A food high on on the Glycemic Index is digested quickly and will cause a significant spike in blood sugar. This will (generally) cause insulin to spike. When insulin spikes, it signals your body to store all of that blood sugar (think: your mom ending Lego play time). The higher the insulin response, the more blood sugar is converted to fat. A food low on the Glycemic Index doesn’t do that.
Glycemic Load is like the Glycemic Index, except that it factors in serving size. A food like watermelon has a high glycemic index, but a low glycemic load. Eating three watermelons is harder than eating a small bowl of macaroni.
The Insulin Index is similar to the Glycemic Index, except that it cuts out the middle man. Instead of looking at changes in blood sugar, this index just looks right at the changes in insulin. Since there are so many factors that account for a rise in insulin (fiber, protein, fat, carbohydrate complexity, etc.), it just makes sense to look at the final factor. Rarely does it deviate from the findings of the Glycemic Index, but for someone at risk for type 2 diabetes (think: your mom has been yelling for so long that you’re deaf), this is a great resource.
Here’s a little snapshot of the Glycemic, Insulin, and Satiety Index. All scores are in relation to white bread. A higher glycemic index score means a food raises blood sugar more than white bread. A higher insulin index score means a food raises insulin more than white bread. A higher satiety index score means a food is more filling than white bread.
|Food||Glycemic Index||Insulin Index||Satiety Index|
The reason all of this needs to be mentioned is because carbohydrates have the most significant impact on personal energy. If your personal energy is steady, that means insulin is not interfering and blood sugar isn’t all over the place. These indices are good places to start to understand why personal energy fluctuates.
Thing #6: Carbs aren’t the bad guy. Being hungry and sleepy is the bad guy.
Food Doesn’t Give You Cancer
“I can get you any result you want in any observational data set.”
—Dr. John Ioannidis, We’re So Confused: The Problems With Food And Exercise Studies
Have you heard about a “recent study” that “totally changes the way we think about food,” lately? Of course you have. There are hundreds of nutrition studies published every month. And there are even more people who suck at reading them.
Cancer is a scary thing. And you should do stuff to not get it (like wear as much sunscreen as possible). But there is little to no reproducible research indicating that diet has any statistical correlation to cancer. Yes, reproducible research is really hard to find. But more likely than not, the correlation between diet and cancer is so small that it isn’t worth our attention. What is worth our attention are the things that we already know give us cancer (genetics, UV exposure, tobacco, X-Rays, radioactivity, asbestos, and the sitcom The Big Bang Theory).
So if you don’t want to get cancer, stop focusing on food’s role in cancer so that you can pay attention to the stuff that will have significant prevention value.
Thing #7: No one wants cancer. But food isn’t giving it to you.
The Point Of The Article: Eat Real Food That You Can Cook At Home
“You’re smart and you know what real food is, so stop eating crap.”
—Steve Kamb, NerdFitness
“Eat all the junk food you want, as long as you cook it yourself.”
I’m a big fan of hard and fast rules. They make things simple. It would be nice if there was a list of healthy foods and a list of unhealthy foods. It would be nice if there was a way to eat that was environmentally-conscious, cheap, simple, required no time investment, and gave everyone six-pack abs. But life is full of too many compromises and pie is too delicious for food to be that one-dimensional.
But I do have a rule that might help synthesize some of the things I’ve mentioned.
The Rule: The more difficult something is to cook at home, the more caution we should exercise toward it.
I’ll just illustrate this point by giving a bunch of examples.
Sweet potato. Should I be cautious of eating sweet potatoes? How hard would it be to prepare a sweet potato at home? Not hard. Not cautious. Worth eating.
Flour. Should I be cautious of flour? I mean, I could make it at home, but it wouldn’t be very fun. Lots of non-sexual grinding. And it wouldn’t look anything like the white, fluffy stuff I buy at the store. So I’m going to be a little cautious.
Chipotle. Should I be cautious of a Chipotle burrito? How hard would it be to prepare at home? Well, the tortilla would be kind of hard (because of the flour), but everything else (rice, beans, chicken, guacamole, salsa) is pretty easy. Salsa might be a little time consuming, but it’s not complicated or difficult. So I would be a little cautious of the tortilla, but nothing else. Well, except…
Cheese. Can I make cheese at home? Depends on the cheese. The best cheeses are just milk plus enzymes. That’s a pretty short ingredient list. The ingredient list for Velveeta has chapter divisions. Could I make a block of mozzarella at home if I really wanted? Yes. Could I make nacho cheese at home? No way. Depending on the cheese, have varying degrees of caution.
Hot dogs. Can I make a hot dog at home? Technically. But I would rather make that block of mozzarella than spend a week measuring out all of those chemicals. Cautious.
Lean Cuisine. This one is tricky. I could totally copy the recipe of a Lean Cuisine and it would be freaking delicious and good for me. But could I make a pre-packaged frozen dinner meant to last for weeks in a supermarket? No. Even though the ingredients are all nutritious, we’re cautious of this one for the exact same reasons we’re cautious of the hot dog: it’s made to last forever.
BLT. When the name of the food is the ingredient list, you’re pretty safe. But let’s break this one down. Bacon: easy. Lettuce: easy. Tomato: easy. Bread: less easy. Bread designed to last forever: even less easy. Mayo: easy. Mayo designed to last forever: less easy.
Olive oil. Could I make olive oil at home? Yes. I would just smash some olives. I would probably use my feet, even though that’s not a thing.
Vegetable oil. Could I make vegetable oil (this includes soybean, sunflower, and canola oil) at home? Actually, I couldn’t. I would need crazy special machinery and a few questionable chemicals to extract and process these oils. I would exercise a lot more caution than I would toward a tortilla.
Pasta. Can I make pasta at home? Yes, just boil some water and… wait… OK, pasta would be kind of hard to make at home. Maybe a little caution.
Sugar. I have no idea how to make sugar. Caution.
Honey. I have an idea how to make honey. I just don’t like bees. Less caution.
Splenda. I don’t even know what Splenda is. All the caution.
Just because we need to exercise varying degrees of caution toward certain foods doesn’t mean we should never eat them. But because we are cautious of certain foods, we should be smart about how we interact with them. Think of “cautious” foods like an ex-girlfriend. You don’t need to run and hide when you see her in public, but you also shouldn’t join her Zumba class.
So since you and these foods “just need a little space,” here are a few ideas to keep the distance platonic:
Shop the perimeter. There are two parts of a grocery store: the middle and the perimeter. The perimeter of the grocery store is basically a farmers market. Besides the donuts in the Bakery, there is very little to worry about on the perimeter.
But think of the middle of the grocery store like your ex. The foods in the middle are designed to last for weeks without any attention or refrigeration. We should exercise some caution over these foods and, therefore, spend most of our time “shopping the perimeter.”
You can never spend too much money at the grocery store. I spend a lot of money at the grocery store. And it’s not because I buy organic/vegan/Paleo everything. It’s because every dollar I spend at the grocery store saves me $2-3 dollars I would have spent eating out. Aside from saving me money in the long run, eating home-made food gives me more control over what I put in my body.
Don’t be weird. So processed foods are a problem. But Oreos are awesome. You don’t have to run and hide when someone breaks out the Dub-Stuffs. We just need to find our balance and not be weirdos that force people to make us special food at parties.
Thing #8: Mostly eat real food that you can cook at home.
Questions That Didn’t Deserve Their Own Section
“At the end of the day, the reason why there’s so much confusion is because there’s too much to be gained by keeping us all confused and looking for guidance. Similarly, the fact that nutrition and health science is difficult and slow doesn’t engender much faith from a quick-fix addicted public.”
–Alan Henry, Lifehacker
Do I need to eat breakfast? No, unless skipping it is creating poor eating habits later in the day. Which is why I eat breakfast.
Do I need to eat six meals a day? No, unless you’re trying to put on weight. Two to four meals is fine, as long as it works for you and keeps your personal energy high and willpower expenditure low.
Do I need to learn to cook? Yes, unless you’re rich.
Should I be batch cooking? Yes, unless you like cooking multiple times every day.
What should I do if I’m trying to lose weight? Don’t try to lose weight.
OK, I did everything you told me in the article. Now how do I lose weight? Don’t try to lose weight. Looking like a model is overrated. Feeling good and being confident in your own skin is more attractive than the “perfect” body. And if you did everything I said, you now have a surplus of personal energy coursing through your veins. Apply all of that extra energy to a physical activity you enjoy (walking, dancing, weightlifting, fencing, jiu-jitsu, laser tag, boxing, soccer) and do it every-ish day. It might help you lose weight and it will definitely increase your personal energy.
Are giant food companies evil? Probably.
Do taste buds change after changing your diet? Will I eventually crave broccoli? Ummm, maybe. It’s a brain thing, not a tongue thing. And if you cook broccoli right, you’ll use lots of olive oil, which you will crave because it is fat. And fat is awesome.
Do I need to “mix it up” and change the way I eat so that my body doesn’t adapt? That’s not a thing. But it couldn’t hurt to eat fish occasionally or try a new vegetable every so often.
Multivitamins? I have no idea. That’s one of those 20% things.
Gluten? No idea. Unless you have an allergy, that’s one of those 20% things.
FODMAPS? No idea. 20% thing.
Paleo? I’m a big fan of Steve Kamb’s “Paleo-ish” Diet, but it’s a 20% thing.
MSG, aspartame, and high-fructose corn syrup? By avoiding processed foods, these are easily avoided. Avoiding them at all costs is a 20% thing.
GMO’s? Mostly a 20% thing. Not all GMO’s are created equal. Do your research. The primary reason to worry about GMO’s is because many are sprayed more heavily with pesticides or Roundup (because they have been modified to resist these chemicals). GMO’s aren’t going to mess you up, but a thick layer of pesticides on your food will mess you up.
Detoxes and cleanses? Not a thing. Actually, a stupid thing. Instead, try fasting and just give me the $100 you were going to spend on highly-marketed fruit juice.
I just read this article that said something different than you.This is America. Everyone is entitled to their own wrong opinions.
What is the perfect diet? The one that works for your schedule, keeps your personal energy high, and keeps your willpower expenditure low.
Food is not complicated. Decades of marketing made it complicated. Instead of listening to our culture’s misinformed dialog about food, listen to your body. Pay attention to your energy and hunger levels 2-3 hours after a meal. Pay attention to how different types of carbohydrate and fat affect you. Then, adjust accordingly.
And cook real food at home.
I think that sums up the First 80% of Nutrition.
P.S. If you want to learn more about nutrition, Precision Nutrition and Nerd Fitness are two of the best websites on the internet. They know what they’re talking about. They’re good communicators. And they actually care about people, so they focus most of their time helping people with the First 80% of Nutrition.